Presenting a new understanding of what the Bible is and how to engage it
The Bible is a gathering together of very unique writings, including letters, stories about Jesus, histories, song lyrics, wisdom literature, prophetic oracles, and much more. All the different authors of the Bible had a reason for choosing the kind of writing they did. Each book of the Bible has its own character, and each makes a special contribution to the whole Bible.
The first step to reading and understanding the Bible well is to recognize these unique stories, letters, poems and proverbs and read them as the kind of writing they are. If all we ever do is read single statements from here and there in the Bible, we will miss what the Bible's authors actually wrote. This would mean not receiving all that the Bible was meant to give us. So your journey with the Bible should begin by reading whole books. (The invitations at the beginning of every book in your NIV from Biblica will help introduce you to each unique writing.)
It wasn't until the 16th century that the Bible was first printed with both chapter and verse numbers in the text. But this innovation had a profound affect on how we saw the Bible. Since then it has become common to think of the Bible as a collection of individual, numbered statements. The form influenced our view of its content. Because the Bible looked like a list of isolated statements, it was not hard to think that's what it really was. (inset shot of Geneva Bible open spread, KJV, or similar)
The second step to good engagement is to recognize that the Bible is not a random collection of books. Taken together, these writings tell a single, true story. What kind of story does the Bible tell?
Restoring the Bible: Bringing Back the Story
To follow along with the story of the Bible is to take a great journey, and we are all invited. This story is so big that it includes everyone. The Bible takes us through God's creation of the world, how things went terribly wrong, and then all that God is doing to set them right again. It is not an easy journey. The brokenness in the world goes deep. As you will see, it will take something extraordinary to fix it.
So why do we have the Bible? The reason God inspired the Bible's authors and gave us this gift was to invite us into his story. Actually, according to the Bible, we are already in it, whether we know it or not. If we know anything of joy and beauty and goodness in our lives, then we've experienced the gift of God's good creation. Likewise, we've all been affected by what's gone wrong. This brokenness weaves its way through all the world—in our personal lives, in relationships and in the places we live, work, and play.
But the part God is inviting us into is the new part of the story. The big news in the Bible is how God is bringing healing, restoration, and the life that is truly life. Before we explain more about how you can take up your own role in the story of redemption, here's an overview of the big, overarching narrative in the Bible.
The storyline naturally falls into six key major acts:
Act 1. God creates the world as our home and the place he intends to live with us;
Act 2. We disobey God and break his trust, bringing sin and death into the world;
Act 3. God responds creatively to the problem, establishing the nation of Israel to bring blessing to all peoples;
Act 4. The story reaches its climax in the coming of Jesus the Messiah; he fulfills Israel's mission and brings God's surprising victory through his life, death and resurrection;
Act 5. Jesus calls and commissions his followers to spread the word of his victory and live his way as a light to the world;
Act 6. Heaven and earth are reunited when God makes his home with us in the new creation.
What does this story look like in a little more detail?
Okay, what does this story have to do with us? The Bible's claim is that God made us for a purpose. We find the meaning of our lives when we join up with what God is doing in the world to bring healing and restore life. This is why it is important to think of the Bible not just as a story, but as a living drama. A drama is not meant to be something we just sit and read. A script doesn't turn into a drama until it is actually performed. This is what connects us to what we read about in the Bible. The story has to be activated in our lives.
So how does this drama approach work?
The Bible as a drama
The fifth act of the biblical drama has not ended. The good news of Jesus' victory over sin and death (which takes place in the fourth act) is still spreading around the world. The grand finale in the sixth act has not yet arrived. So the Bible is actually the script of the first four acts, the opening of the fifth act, and contains only some brief pictures of the conclusion of the story. The Bible is not merely an ancient story that is already over and done with. It is a living story that invites us in, right now. We are key players in the ongoing story of Act 5.
The challenge the Bible brings to us is to decide how we are going to respond to the decisive victory of Jesus. We are all caught up into this story. The only question is what role we will play. Will we oppose it, following our own script and going our own way? Or will we commit to follow Jesus, come into his kingdom, and help bring light and life to the rest of world?
How do I find out how to play my role in God's story? The answer to this question has two parts. First it is important to understand God's role. Then we can explore how we find our own place in the drama.
God himself is the key to this story. He is involved in four crucial ways:
God is the Playwright, the Author of the script
World history—including your personal history—is not a random series of events. In the Scriptures, God has revealed his plan for the world. The plot centers on overcoming the evil that has invaded God's good creation and reconciling everything in heaven and earth. He is working to bring us back to himself. God is overseeing the entire drama.
God is the Creator of the stage and setting
As the Creator, God intended for there to be a single stage. He made heaven and earth to be together. But when sin and death disrupted the story, God's realm and our realm were torn apart. The stage is now divided. The events of our history occur in a fallen creation. But God is working to restore his original purpose and bring heaven and earth back together. God will return to make his home with us in his renewed world.
God is the Primary Player, the Initiator of the action
As you go deeper into the Bible you will see God taking the initiative again and again to move the story along. He chooses key people to play major roles. He makes covenants with his people. He moves the events of nations. God's human partners don't always play their parts well. They all seem to suffer from an inability to follow God's plan faithfully. But this doesn't prevent God from bringing his salvation into the world. Even when people make major mistakes, God finds a way to keep his story on track. It is a difficult journey, with lots of stops and starts. But things do move ahead. God is not writing the story from a distance. He is an active player—THE active player—to make sure in the end it will be a redemptive story.
(As an aside, it is worth noting that God displays this amazing ability to turn things around in our own personal stories too. Our major mistakes and false moves, all those things that can look like dead ends in our lives, can be transformed by God. He is the master storyteller, and the story he is writing is good news.)
God is the Hero, the Savior, the Protagonist of the story
If the story of human history is going to be saved, God is the only one who can do it. We are not the heroes of this drama. God overcomes all the obstacles, all the challenges, and brings his victory over our enemies, sin and death. We, ourselves, are part of what he has to overcome. We have all lived in ways that oppose God. When God sent his own Son Jesus into the story—Light and Life coming into a story of darkness—he was rejected. But amazingly God used even this rejection to turn the drama around. Jesus was brutally killed on a Roman cross, but this very defeat turned into the path to new life and restored creation. Through Jesus, forgiveness of wrongdoing and resurrection from the dead can be announced throughout the world. God has reclaimed the story. This is what the Bible means by the word gospel.
In sum, we can say the Bible is first and foremost God's story. We are not the creators of the drama. He is the one who will determine its final outcome.
However, we are not mere bystanders. God has created us as significant players in his drama. He has decided he will not do this without us. We are not passive observers of life. We were made to be fully engaged in the story. The hero of the drama—Jesus—came into the story as one of us. He joined with the human race. And he now invites us to follow him into this new way of being human, the way God always intended. This is what it means for us to be gospel players. We are in the drama as people who have been saved by the gospel, and we are now helping to bring this gospel to others. We are to live the gospel in our world.
Here's what it takes to become a skilled gospel player, someone who effectively lives out the story of the Bible in our world:
Immerse yourself in the Bible
Earlier we mentioned that many people use the Bible by jumping from verse to verse on different topics. But this is really just skimming the surface of the Bible. Reading well means going deep. Going deep means discovering the richness of full letters to early Christ-followers, taking in the down-to-earth stories of Israel, reflecting on complete psalms, journeying with Jesus in the gospels, etc. The Bible is not always an easy book to read, but as you go deep and accept it on its own terms, it will likewise reward you deeply.
The more you read the Bible deeply and widely, the more you will come to realize two crucial lessons.
First, there really is more than one act in the drama. As the story moves through the different acts, or movements, of the story, there are important changes. Another way of saying this is that the drama is full of surprises. Good Bible reading means keeping track of what part of the story you are in. Many people forget this and think they can quote a line from any part of the Bible, assuming they all apply equally to our situation today. But this kind of cherry-picking of Bible verses ignores the fact that as the drama moves through its six acts, key aspects of the story are transformed.
Some elements of the story fit certain stages of the drama, but not all of them. The story progresses, and as it does we learn more and more about God's intentions for us and what his redemption of the world looks like. We are gospel players from Act 5 and not from some other part of the story. The climax of the story—the life and work of Jesus the Messiah—has already happened. We can't act as though we are living in an earlier act. (For example, not all of Israel's laws from Acts 3 and 4 apply to us. A key book in Act 5, the book of Hebrews, explains some of this.)
In sum, when you are reading the Bible, know your place!
The second lesson is that there are vital threads that hold the story together. It's true that things change when we move through the drama. But there are also key themes that emerge across the acts. These repeating patterns in the story reveal the heart of what God is communicating to us in the Bible. This includes such things as:
–God's insistence that justice be done and wrongdoing be dealt with;
–his patient mercy and continuing invitation to those who are estranged from him;
–his overriding desire for reconciliation;
–his frequent way of using what is considered "least" in the world to do his greatest work;
–how God "chooses" certain people or nations, but always in order to help many others.
There are of course many other such threads that tie all the twists and turns of the drama together. One of the single biggest keys to knowing how to live the script of the Bible today is to learn these themes, and then enact them in your own life. The more you read, the greater chance you will have of shaping your life in line with the grain of God's story.
In sum, when you are reading the Bible, know your themes!
Commit to follow Jesus
A very insightful person once said that to truly know something, you have to love it. The Bible shares this point of view. We are eager for everyone to read the Bible—to reap the benefits of exploring its wide variety of writings, to trace its story and engage with its world-transforming plot. In this sense, any one of us can know the Bible and learn about its contents. But there is a deeper, more profound sense in which we can only come to know the Bible when we come to love it. Or perhaps we should say, when we come to love the one who is at the heart of the Bible.
This is another way of saying that to really know the Bible, you have to enter into its story. It is when your life's story becomes part of the drama of the Bible that you will genuinely know the Bible. The way to do this is to become a follower of the one who is the source of healing and restoration in the story—Jesus. Read more.
Improvise your part
The last step for living the script is to join up with other gospel players in local communities. Those who are in God's church gather to live out the story of the Bible together. Gospel players commit to following the way of Jesus and immersing themselves in the Scriptures.
However, when we look in the Bible for the description of our specific scene, in our time, we don't find it there. We read deeply to learn all we can from the earlier acts and scenes. But we do not find our exact lines and actions written down. We can't wake up in the morning and go find the script for our day. And it won't do to simply go on and on repeating lines from earlier in the story.
So how do we move ahead? What does it mean to live biblically, to follow the script today? The letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament begins by describing God's goal of bringing heaven and earth together in Christ. Then it describes how God is saving people as part of this cosmic vision, creating one new humanity in the image of Jesus the Messiah. The purpose of this new humanity is described as follows: For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. In other words, God wants us to creatively enter into his story, to fashion and form our lives in the shape of his drama.
To live biblically is to make decisions, to enter into relationships with others, and to constantly ask ourselves: is this a fitting way to live out the story of the gospel today? Are we bringing the deep themes of the Bible into the reality of our own lives? In a sense, we are called to improvise our own part in the drama. To improvise doesn't mean we randomly make things up as we go. To improvise well is to stay firmly grounded on what has already happened in the story, and then move ahead within it. We continue the story— appropriately—in the new situation we find ourselves in.
Specifically, we are called to live our lives as part of the spread of the good news about Jesus throughout the world. We tell others this good news of God's kingdom. And we demonstrate what this good news looks like in action. In this way we are participants in God's story.
It can be tempting to think that every action we take, every decision we make, can be justified by looking up the right verse in the Bible. But God takes us more seriously than that. He has given us all kinds of guidance and help (see below), but he has made us to be significant creatures, not robots. He has given us the opportunity to create something of our lives, to give something beautiful back to beauty's Creator.
Here, then, are seven critical aids God gives us as we take up our place in his drama of salvation:
1. we can immerse ourselves in the script of the earlier acts (this is what the Bible is);
2. the Author made us in his own image, so we are built to be receptive to his directions for life;
3. we have the personal help of the Playwright's own Spirit to guide us and prompt us;
4. we have weekly opportunities to re-enact and celebrate the story of salvation together in worship;
5. we have local spiritual directors (pastor-teachers) to give us stage directions and guide our actions;
6. we are not alone on the stage of our lives but are in a community of gospel players to encourage us;
7. we have the entire history of gospel performances in the church to learn from.
And as an added bonus, we know that the Author of the drama will forgive us when we stumble in our lines or misplay our parts. He is gracious and will give us new opportunities to live out his story.
The Bible is a great gift. It tells us who we are and what we are meant to do with our lives. It is in the drama of the Bible that we discover all that God has done and is doing to reclaim his creation, to win us back to himself. This drama is transforming lives around the world. It can also transform your life.
At Biblica, our prayer is that you will read the Scriptures deep and well. You will come to know their rich variety, and then enter into their story. You will begin to live the script. Your life will be reshaped by the power of new creation in Jesus that has burst into the world. God doesn't want to see your life become a sorry spectacle, or worse, a tragedy. His intention is that even in the midst of all your struggles and challenges, you will find yourself firmly in his great drama of redemption and renewal.